“Light for the Rohingya”: the first humanitarian project to train electricians in refugee camps.

Light and security are intimately linked in emergency contexts. In Bangladesh, Electriciens sans frontières, the NGO that fights inequalities in access to electricity and water around the world, launched the “Light for the Rohingyas” initiative in March, a project that is highly innovative in both its form and its objectives. Developed in partnership with local NGO Friendship and global energy management specialist Schneider Electric, the project will provide solar equipment and train future electricians from Bangladeshi local populations and Rohingya refugees to install and maintain it.

“The issue of street lighting and access to electricity is part of the minimum service in emergency situations”. Hervé Gouyet, President of Electriciens sans frontières

Light against insecurity.

In emergency situations, camps are places of high insecurity. The first populations at risk are often the most vulnerable. These are women, girls and children who, when they go out at night, are at risk of theft, sexual assault or rape. Lighting the camps helps to reduce much of this violence.

This commitment of Electricians sans frontières to light against insecurity began in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In camps characterized by high density, night violence had rapidly increased. The objective was then to stem this violence, observed by all humanitarian actors, by lighting “priority areas” of the camps: water points, latrines, camp alleys, or even the surroundings of health centres.

A Rohingya holding an individual kit ©Electriciens sans frontières

A pilot project in Bangladesh

In Cox’s Bazaar province, where the majority of Rohingya fled from Myanmar and took refuge, Friendship has begun to set up health centres in the camps. Faced with immense needs, the issue of electrification of the centres and their lighting quickly became a priority for humanitarian actors.

When Electricians sans frontières arrives in the field, a lot of equipment has already been distributed, including small individual or family kits. However, these kits are often not of good quality and do not cover all the lighting needs of homes and public places. Not to mention that the reality of the displaced Rohingya is obvious: most of them are still without any paid work today. To avoid competing with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs in the labour market, Rohingya do not have the opportunity to earn a living outside the camp but can be employed in cash for work humanitarian programmes and acquire skills for the future. The objective was therefore to train people living in and around the camp to recreate activity.

Funded by the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the City of Paris and the Fondation de France, the project made it possible to electrify collective parts of the camps by installing 75 solar street lamps near wells and latrines and equipping them with 52 solar domestic systems. In addition, more than 1000 individual solar kits were distributed to the most vulnerable households, connecting different light points – from four to five lamps – and recharging small electronic devices.

Distribution de kits individuels ©Electriciens sans frontières

Training to empower people

“This makes it possible to strongly value people who find themselves in a position of constraint of assistance. The project provides skills and confidence. This is essential in community reconstruction processes” Tania Chauvin, Project Manager, Electricians sans frontières

The project was structured around two training phases. Friendship, as an operational field actor, has identified the beneficiaries of the programme in the camps and local communities. The first phase then consisted in training two trainers using the pedagogical and material contributions of Electriciens sans frontières and Schneider Electric. These intermediate trainers, from the NGO Friendship and already having a technical engineering profile, then trained the twenty Rohingya and Bangladeshi apprentices themselves.

Nothing could have been done without the volunteers of Electriciens sans frontières who travelled to the field to carry out, supervise and support the training. Jean-David, former director of the EDF Hydraulic Engineering Centre, is the project manager. Patrice, trainer at Schneider Electric, provided the theoretical training of the trainers and Jean-Baptiste reporter, made a film about the project. Finally, Jean-Louis, hydraulic operator, will take delivery of the last worksites in June and carry out an initial assessment of the first installations. They have been volunteers at Electriciens sans frontières for several years (between 4 and 12 years).

Educational sheet used in training at Cox’s Bazar, May 2019 ©Electriciens sans frontières

There was a real challenge in providing educational materials adapted to the different levels of skills and profiles of the people trained. Two levels of approach had to be implemented.“Laure Mercier, Project Manager Rohyngias, Electricians sans frontières.

Carried out in the field, the theoretical aspect of the training was immediately reinforced by a substantial practical component, thanks to the deployment of solar systems in the camp.

The diversity of solar equipment already present also allowed learners to develop broader skills by training in their practical work on several models of streetlights and solar kits.

Installation of a solar home system as part of practical training at Camp 20 in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh, 2019 ©Electricians sans frontières.

Training people at the local level is more than just bringing electricity or light to the camps. It is a real desire to empower people that has driven this project. Capable of installing and repairing solar systems on a permanent basis, these “first-level electricians” can thus earn a living and set up their own microenterprise. Some have even already received proposals from NGOs present in the Cox’s Bazar camps, as maintenance electricians for the humanitarian facilities provided.

The idea is to allow them to work and encourage them to set up as entrepreneurs in the camp. We are therefore working on a triple package: theoretical training, practical training and entrepreneurship training.“Hervé Gouyet, President of Electriciens sans frontières

A Rohingya refugee with a Schneider Electric individual lamp ©Electriciens sans frontières.

An initiative that is part of local issues

Humanitarian aid can sometimes impact local economies by suddenly raising prices (influx of people, limited resources). Integrating the Bangladeshi “host” populations into this project therefore contributes to anticipating these abuses and limiting tensions between the camp’s occupants and the local population. It strives not to create inequality in the provision of skills and establishes links between the camp and the outside world.

Recycling, sustainability and ecology

Usually generators can be quickly installed in the field and thus constitute the “easy” answer regarding access to electricity in emergency situations. However, they are polluting (CO2 emissions) and present electrical risks. They also cause significant noise pollution and often have a short lifespan. Thus, solar energy has emerged in the humanitarian sector, providing a more expensive alternative in the immediate but nevertheless in the long term more effective and sustainable.

Installation of a solar street lamp, May 2019, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh ©Electriciens sans frontières.

In Cox’s Bazaar, compared to the use of generators, the installation of solar equipment would represent about 10 tons of CO2 avoided per year, which is not negligible. In addition, the project trains electricians directly involved in the renewable energy sector.

A major challenge is to prevent individual failed kits from being thrown away directly, as is often the case because of the complexity of dismantling them for repair. The same applies to all solar equipment, which is often thrown away when it could simply be repaired. From now on, this equipment can be repaired by electricians.

However, some poor quality kits are not repairable. In the long term, the three project partners wish to develop a recycling component for the batteries of the kits and these poor quality kits via a centralized collection and recovery system in the camps. Having trained people who are able to collect in the camps is a major asset.

E-waste management is an issue in the camps. It will be necessary to support the creation of channels, at least management and then recycling, to avoid direct pollution on the ground, especially in places such as camps that are located on muddy ground, which can be quickly flooded during the monsoon season and where waste management is therefore all the more complex. “Tania Chauvin, Project Manager, Electricians sans frontières.

Outcomes of the pilot project

Beyond security, having light recreates life. It allows people to rebuild themselves. “Hervé Gouyet, President of Electriciens sans frontières.

The project finally went beyond a safety-focused intervention. The opening of lighted spaces allows people to leave their homes to recreate spaces of conviviality, especially in countries close to the equator where the sun sets at 6pm. Without installation, all activity stops at night. Having light during the hours after sunset therefore means extending the social, family and community life of refugees. Under each light point, meetings and appointments can then be organized between the inhabitants of the camp. It is important that these spaces continue to exist by being maintained.

There are often constraints related to the context, to the adaptability of the humanitarian world where we are working on financial disbursement models that are still very much focused on emergencies. So we prefer the cheapest, easiest to distribute and we think less about interventions over time, which may cost more in the future, but ultimately in the long term and even in the medium term, it is penalizing. “Tania Chauvin, Project Manager, Electricians sans frontières.

At present, no equivalent approach has been put in place in emergency humanitarian situations. Often, only lamps are distributed in refugee camps. The idea of Electricians sans frontières is to try to duplicate this program, which lasted a month, in other camps, so that there will be light in a sustainable way.

Interview with:
Hervé Gouyet, President of Electriciens sans frontières
Tania Chauvin, Project Manager at Electriciens sans frontières.

By Sarah Boisson, Editor for Humanitarian Challenges